Libraries filled the grandest dreams of the United States’ richest, most powerful capitalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Adolph Sutro stands out in part because his dream expired with him in 1898, leaving only unfinished plans for establishing in San Francisco a public library with his vast private collection of rare books and manuscripts as its core. This vision was partially revived by his heir and daughter Emma Sutro Merritt who, in 1913, donated Sutro’s collections—what remained of them after the 1906 fires—to the state of California. This gift came with the stipulation that it would remain in the city of San Francisco. It also came only one year after San Franciscans voted on whether or not another extremely wealthy individual would be allowed to develop San Francisco’s libraries. 

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie promised $750,000 to renovate San Francisco’s existing public library system and build new branches. “Carnegie libraries,” which can be found in cities across the United States, were a significant part of a philanthropic scheme through which Carnegie claimed to enable working and industrial classes to participate in civic, intellectual, and cultural life. These library buildings remain rich symbols of the U.S. myths of self-reliance and auto-didacticism. Carnegie felt that libraries were legitimate means of personal and community improvement, but many critics saw Carnegie himself as a compromised individual; he represented an unconscionable gap between the captains of industry and the working classes. In the eyes of San Francisco’s labor leaders, Carnegie’s money was tainted and least of all was there desire to be, in any way, indebted to him. 
That sentiment is felt strongly in a policy statement that was put to a vote during San Francisco’s November 1912 elections. The policy’s authors did not mince words: they sought “the rejection of, or the refusal to accept or use, any gift or donation from Andrew Carnegie for library or other public purpose.”

Officials felt these monies would give the industrialist leverage on City Hall, and ultimately favor the interests of an individual over the people. The text’s pro-union, pro-labor movement sympathies extends to the flyer’s production. The emblem in the upper right-hand corner is a “union bug.” It signals that a unionized workplace printed this document.  

Politics clearly work in and through libraries. Even the architecture itself—the façade, the floorplan, the shelves—can be a site of struggle as Scott Young argues in an essay on how Carnegie’s financial power shaped libraries “according to his own capitalist view of labor and learning.” Libraries were especially convenient as means of imposing these views because it is so hard to argue against them, as city labor leaders learned when the public firmly rejected their attempted refusal. The measure failed by a significant margin. In only two voting districts was their a majority in favor.

Jose Guerrero is a Cataloging & Metadata Librarian at Sutro Library.

2 thoughts on “The Great Refusal

  1. Great story about the people fighting the influence of exploitative robber barons in our city. However, the unions lost the cause, San Francisco eventually took the money and built seven branch libraries and the now old Main using Carnegie funds from 1914 to 1921. SF’s “Carnegie” libraries are still standing: The Richmond (1914), Mission (1915), Noe Valley (1916), Sunset (1918), Golden Gate Valley (1918), old North Beach, now called Chinatown (1921), and Presidio (1921). These libraries are registered San Francisco Landmarks. Noe Valley maintains an elegant original stairway.

    SFPL has a document available exploring this collaboration and the controversy in building branches with Carnegie’s filthy lucre:

    The Mission branch was built and furnished for about $51,000 in 1915 and will undergo a renovation bracing it for the next century of users and climate change through bond funds to the tune of $19.8mm.


    1. Hi Craig! Thanks for your comment!

      The SFPL’s history on the Carnegie libraries is a great source and it was one of the first things I found when I looked into this flyer. There’s certainly a lot to think about with regard to the past and present schemes for funding libraries–thanks for giving us more to mull over!


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